how Damon Albarn's virtual band shaped music history

In 2000, he was in a pub with Alex James to discuss Fat Les’ groundbreaking rework of ‘Jerusalem’. The conversation inevitably revolved around the possibility of a new Blur album. “Well,” grinned Alex, “as soon as Damon finishes his monkey thing, we’ll see …”

It was the first time I’d – or pretty much everyone – heard of Damon Albarn’s “Monkey Business,” and the more clues that came out in the months to come, the more ridiculous it sounded. Like one of these ideas, you and your friends are dreaming on the third night of a mescaline bender and when you have had a week to calm down, one of them is taking far too seriously. A comic band? With a satanic bassist and an obsessed drummer? Go zombie hop? It sounded about as likely as if my own magical computer money idea took off at 4 a.m.

When they arrived, it sure took Gorillaz a while to get our heads around. I was hired to write their first NME cover interview in a way that suggested I was getting into an uproar with the cartoon stars themselves, rather than sitting in a secular studio in west London with Damon and Jamie Hewlett as Gorillaz realized that despite all his fantastic antics and backstories (2-D comas, Russell’s demonic possessions, noodle arrival from Osaka in a packing box, Murdoc’s handling of the devil), he had a dark but recognizable accent on “realism”.

These cartoons had criminal records, abusive childhoods, and deep physical and psychological scars. Live they were just as unfathomable: when they first performed at Scala in London in March 2001, Damon and an undefined band performed behind a white screen that stretched across the front of the stage and was occasionally lit from behind in the shadows during the melodica riffs has been. The novelty aspect was exciting, but you wondered how long fans could see stills of Gorillaz members floating across a white screen like the comic book Pong before this novelty goes as thin as Murdoc’s decimated jeans.

But two decades later – since last Friday (March 26th) – after the release of the Gorillaz debut album, Damon is far from finished with his “monkey thing”. When the self-titled debut in America became a far bigger hit than any other Blur’s, the madness became a money-making mainstream for Albarn. You can see why the concept of a virtual comic band to hide behind might appeal to a high profile artist who tirelessly checks the press after his breakup album and wants to explore a wider soundscape with a slew of new staff without going into studios Bored of doing photo sessions with little-known American producers, or tedious dry interviews to explain to Beetlebum fans who Del The Funky Homosapien is.

What is really impressive, however, is how Damon developed the project from an experimental container for all the rhythms and sounds that didn’t fit on blur records to an influential sonic melting pot. Pan-cultural star guests showed up – Shaun Ryder, Roots Manuva, De La Soul, Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, Mark E. Smith, Mos Def, Bobby Womack, Yukimi Nagano, Gruff Rhys and Neneh Cherry – and made early Gorillaz albums virtually wormholes between indie rock and hip hop. The relative anonymity allowed Albarn the complete freedom to indulge in the global textures and cutting edge styles he liked without the burden of responsibility: if you don’t like it … pffft – some cartoons have done it.

It was arguably the first time mainstream music was made without the limitations of the genre or the expectations of the person, and its success opened the floodgates of cross-pollination to millennial music. Before Gorillaz captured and updated the carefree crossover spirit of their early collaborators, The Tom Tom Club, rock rap was “Walk This Way” or “Limp Bizkit”, “world music” was Paul Simon or Sting, and experimental electronic sounds were just the territory from Radiohead. boring DJs with all the primary color pizzazz of the average skip and obscure leftfield acts that just bleakly hide behind telephone poles.

After Gorillaz, people like Animal Collective, MIA, Vampire Weekend, MGMT, Goat and all the acts who ever had their singer hit a snare drum reveled in their beautiful new Sonic Free-for-All during the loud pieces. At a time when unbridled musical connectivity is a given – The Flaming Lips in collaboration with Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift in The National, Kanye West in collaboration with Bon Iver – it could be said that Gorillaz was decades ahead of her time if she was would not have played such a large part in inciting.

It turned Albarn from a great artist into a historically significant one. If Britpop proved he was able to bend British culture at will – or at least lure it to his chosen dog track – Gorillaz repeated the feat on a global scale. It seemed to unleash him too. Operas, musicals, soundtracks, art rock supergroups, Afrika Express, a solo album; Without having his face on his main project, he was free to flit through a cornucopia of one-off projects without ever looking overexposed, one of the most influential, restless and trailblazing artists of his generation. If Blur won the battle and Oasis won the war, Albarn himself won the Nobel Peace Prize.

20 years later, Gorillaz is still having a hard time turning his head around. The recent spate of eclectic tracks released monthly as part of their ‘Song Machine’ project felt a bit like being the first to run out of ammo in a paintball fight. Her accompanying livestream was a typically dizzying experience, with a hologram Beck dancing next to a golf buggy, a druid Matt Berry and a cartoon Elton John singing on a grand piano adorned with a hairy hand candelabra. When I finally got to chat face-to-face with Murdoc and 2-D on camera in 2017 (in an interview with that empty sofa and we’ll do the rest), I thought I could get some clarity and insight into their hidden Mechanisms, ideas and inspirations. But they only told me their best prison stories and kept assuming I was Rick Astley, who let go.

Jamie Hewlett designed Gorillaz in 2001. Photo credit: Getty

It’s frustrating that the band was trending on ‘Gorillaz’ 20th anniversary only because they announced an NFT auction polluting the environment, despite publishing the cautionary environmental satire ‘Plastic Beach’ in 2010 ( Note to bands: you can mint NFTs on blockchains) are hundreds of thousands of times more energy efficient than Ethereum – just to say the least). Because those waffle freaks are one of the biggest deeds of the century and I hope Damon never gets through fumbling around.